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I stumbled into accordion repair about ten years ago. There aren’t many of us repairmen around, and by now I’ve become friends with many of them throughout the U.S. We exchange tips about what tools to use and what techniques work best. I’ve learned that pretty much all of them stumbled into repair, just like me. After all, no one goes to college to get a degree in accordion repair. I don’t know of any shops where you can get an internship or apprenticeship. Most repairmen (so far, everyone I’ve met has been male) have another job, or they’re comfortably retired from another job. Actually, pretty much all of them are old enough to be retired. I like to joke that I’m one of the young ones, and I’m 61 years old.

People often ask me how I started repairing accordions. It was never a conscious decision; it just sort of happened. I’m a life-long musician, a pianist, and about ten years ago I got the idea that I’d take accordion lessons. I thought it would be easy–after all, it has a piano keyboard–but it was very different and it took me years before felt confident enough to play in front of anyone. Early on in my lessons, I met a repairman in Omaha, Nebraska while on a trip. He had just retired and all of his accordions and his tools were sitting there, no longer being used. I bought the tools and 15 accordions and rented a car to drive them back to North Carolina. My original thought was that I’d re-sell the accordions, but it turned out they all needed work before they’d be playable. It wasn’t worth paying someone else to repair them, and besides, I learned pretty fast that there weren’t any repairmen anywhere near my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I spent all of my spare time for about a year repairing these accordions. I made all of my mistakes on my own accordions–and believe me, the only way to learn repair is to try something, get it wrong the first time, and then start over and do it again. Only after you fail miserably will you know how to do it right. (Don’t try to learn from a YouTube video; I’ve had plenty of business from customers who have obviously tried the repair themselves. I know they did it because I remember messing up that same way my first time. Please don’t even try to open it up!)

After about a year working on my own accordions, my accordion teacher asked me if I’d repair an accordion for one of his students. I discovered that I knew exactly what to do. So I built this web site and used the first name I came up with: “The Accordion Place.” I wish I’d thought of a more clever name, but oh well, it works! I posted my phone number and email. Only one week later, I got my first phone call, and I was pretty surprised, to be honest. Then the calls kept coming, and before I knew it, I was in business! At first I was just winging it, but before I knew it, I had four or five accordions at a time. I developed a system to keep track of whose accordion was next in line. I designed estimate forms and invoices. I got a credit-card swiper for my iPad. I soon discovered that to get parts, you have to order from Italy. These days, I put in a parts order every month or two. The only way to be a repairman is to keep parts in stock, because it takes weeks for things to arrive from Italy. You can’t just buy them on Amazon.

Another thing about accordion repair is that you have to make your own tools. You can’t go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and walk to the accordion repair section! Even my supplier in Italy doesn’t sell all the tools you need. Every repairman makes their own. That’s how you know that you’ve really become an accordion repairman–when you have all the tools you need to take on just about any repair job. So now we’re up to three things that you need to repair accordions: First, you need to have the tools; second, you need to have plenty of parts in stock; and third and most important, you have to spend years teaching yourself how to do the many, many types of repairs that come into your shop. And of course, you have to be a nice and honest person and treat customers well.

I still have many “parts accordions” in my house–old accordions that aren’t worth fixing up, but that I can try out new things on. (I guess that’s another thing you need to be a good repairman.) Every accordion has something new, something a little bit different from all of the others I’ve seen. That’s why I love repairing accordions–because it’s not the same thing over and over. It’s not like making widgets on an assembly line. There were no industry standards. The parts from one accordion never fit into another accordion unless it’s exactly the same model. Actually, in some cases the only way to repair an accordion is to buy the same accordion on eBay and cannibalize the parts. The second way to repair a serious problem is to make the replacement part myself. Basically, your cost to repair an accordion is all going to be labor. I charge by the hour, and my rate is a little bit less than your local electrician or heating and cooling technician.

That’s why I love doing the repairs: There are no industry standards and each job is a little bit different. Of course, there are commonalities across accordions, and after ten years of repair I almost never see something completely new in the basic design. But each manufacturer implemented that design slightly differently. Every now and then I see something I haven’t seen before, maybe once a year, and that’s really exciting.

Another cool thing about repairing old accordions is the invisible conversation I have with the long-dead original makers. Accordions were all handmade. They contain machined parts, but the whole instrument was hand-assembled. When I open an accordion, I can see exactly what that craftsman did. I can see the challenges he faced and how he did those last adjustments to make everything fit together. With the highest-quality accordions, on the inside I can see the real reason why they cost more–it’s the craftsmanship and the attention to detail. I imagine these craftsmen 60 and 70 years ago, doing that work, and knowing that almost no one will see the inside of their instrument. Well, they knew that someday, a repairman is going to be inside. But they made the instrument so that it wouldn’t need repair for ten years or more. Still, they felt pride in their work, and when that future repairman opened that instrument, they wanted it to be clear that they cared, that they were one of the best. Interestingly, I never see a name written inside. I never see a serial number, or a year, or a city location. The original maker is lost to history, but I can still feel his presence.

Keith Sawyer

July 12, 2021